Tag Archives: skills-based lessons

Making Grammar Tangible: Designing Ways for Students to Interact with Tools & Rules by Tosh McGaughy

As a seventh grade writing teacher, I adored conferencing with student writers but I struggled with the lack of impact that those conferences had on my students’ understanding (and application) of grammar concepts. I modeled; I provided mentor sentences; I corrected (with non-red Flair pens); I even… assigned a few grammar workbook pages that came with our textbook. (Yes, I was that desperate.) I knew that I needed to teach grammar and conventions within their writing, but I also knew that the things I was doing weren’t working for the majority of my seventh graders (especially my students who were not avid readers.)

The Impetus

Fate intervened and my own daughter transferred to my campus and landed in my English class. Having the benefit of knowing this particular seventh grade learner since birth, I was privy to a depth of understanding about how she learned best which equipped me to design learning tailored for her. A dancer since an early age, she communicated and learned through movement. Though exposed to many books and rich text experiences, reading did not involve enough physical activity to be one of her passions and she had not “absorbed” grammar through prolific reading. Knowing all this, I was presented with the challenge of designing grammar experiences that would actually “reach” this learner because if I was only going to get this one year to be her teacher, I wanted to make the most of it.

The Action Research aka. trial & error

So, I threw out everything I had done previously with grammar and approached it from a different perspective: how can I make the nitty-gritty and fascinating tools of grammar something that students can physically touch, move, and manipulate? This led to me nailing down a process to identify what my students needed to understand, through our writing conferences and formative writing tasks in our journals, and then creating “tangible grammar” tasks that I could use with students during small group instruction based on their specific needs. The lesson components I found most effective with my students were manipulative, cooperative, personal, and memorable.

The Process

The process that evolved was centered around answering four core questions related to those components. 1) How can I make this concept touchable and moveable? 2) How can I get students to discuss and work together on this concept? 3) How can I help students connect the concept to their own writing and usage? 4) How can I design an experience that students will remember as they learn this concept?

Chart with hyper link

The Successes

One successful mini-lesson that came out of this process was “Punctuation Clothespins Dialogue“. Hearing students repeatedly say that they didn’t “see” the punctuation in sentences and that they felt that punctuating was largely an arbitrary process, I wanted to create a lesson that made the tiny pieces of punctuation BIG while providing opportunities for discussions and revisions to punctuating choices.

HOW: I took colored card-stock and printed out the different pieces of punctuation, with end punctuation printed on one color, and all other punctuation printed on another color. Then, I hot glued (okay…my family members hot glued) the punctuation to inexpensive full-size wooden clothespins. In class, I provided my small group with a mentor sentence from a read aloud text that included punctuated dialogue. (The inclusion of the comma in relation to the quotation marks was baffling my students.) They created their own imitation sentences on paper and then re-wrote them, without punctuation, on large sentence strips. Next, they exchanged with one another and used the punctuation clothespins to punctuate each other’s sentences. The author of the sentence would then check the punctuating and discuss any differences in how their peer punctuated and how they punctuated the sentence. Because the clothespins were moveable, they would just clip and unclip to move them around during these discussions. The whole thing took only 15 minutes, but they engaged with a mentor text, wrote their own imitation sentence, punctuated multiple imitation sentences, and discussed punctuation choices with multiple peers. One of my favorite overheard comments was, “these are top punctuation and these are bottom punctuation” when one student explained where the quotation marks and commas went in a sentence. In all my years of teaching grammar and punctuation, I had never thought of the physical position of these things in relation to a sentence, but that was important to these learners and the clothespins helped facilitate that discussion in a way that my proofreading marks and writing conferences never had.

The “Hot Messes”

I’ll admit, not all all of my “tangible grammar” ideas were a hit. My brutally honest daughter would get in the minivan after school and pointedly ask, “How do you think that went?” Ouch. One particularly spectacular miss was “Punctuation Pasta”. Though having the many shapes of pasta for students to sort, choose, discuss, and use to punctuate their own imitation sentences seemed like a creative idea, it devolved into a crunchy pasta-on-the-floor debacle with seventh graders eating raw pasta (that other classes had touched) and few students (if any) leaving with a better handle on the nuances (and beauty) of correct hyphen use.

The Shift

But, my daughter’s incisive and reflective feedback did push me to take more risks that year, and I kept trying new things to reach those learners that I came to realize I had not been designing for: my kinesthetic students and my students who did not read for pleasure. It also pushed me to research the science of constructivism and concept building in order to tap into the pathways of learning that I had previously ignored. (Visible Learning for Literacy by Hattie, Fisher, & Frey was particularly helpful.) Moving away from “covering” grammar rules in my mini-lessons to truly “teaching” the tools of grammar with chunked, explicit, and very tangible tasks helped my students build understanding in multiple ways, which showed in their writing and improved the quality of our writing conferences.

Try it Tuesday: Partnering Up for Reading Conferences

Sometimes inspiration strikes at the most opportune times.

One day last week I had the honor of hosting two small groups of teachers from a different high school as they observed my classroom, one class period in the morning and another in the afternoon. Many of the teachers on their campus have been exploring and practicing with the workshop model for a while now, and they wanted to see my workshop classroom in action.

After each lesson, we met to debrief and hold a kind of question and answer session. Talk about an awesome experience (except for the voice in my head that kept saying “When did you become the expert on workshop? Yikes.)

I think one of the best things we can do as teachers is invite others into our rooms to watch us teach. Talk about keeping on the A Game. That’s a Try it Tuesday suggestion all in itself.

Here’s another one:

During one of those debriefs, one teacher asked about the conferences I conducted as my students read for the first 15 minutes of class. “What questions did you ask?

I explained that it depends on the student.

If I go with “How’s it going?”

My students answer, “Fine.”

If I go with “What are you thinking?”

My students answer, “Nothing.”

So I usually lead with “Tell me a little something about …will ya?” And then I listen to see what direction the conference might take.

That’s pretty much the genesis of every conference with my readers.

Another teacher mentioned that she and a colleague had been thinking about asking students to bring a question, thought, or problem to their reading conferences. You know, kind of like we ask students to do when we meet with them about writing. I’d never thought about it for a quick reading conference though. She wanted to know if I thought it was a good idea.

The image of this book came into my head. I found this copy of The Fault in Our Stars at a thrift store. It looked just like this:  plastered with sticky notes that reflect the student’s thinking. Now, I have no idea why this book is tattooed with notes, but I can imagine a not-so-great idea.

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I hope a teacher didn’t assign this book and ask students to bring ideas to a reading conference. If that happened, I doubt this student got into reading flow. I doubt this student enjoyed this lovely, heart-wrenching book. I doubt she felt the beauty of the language and felt the loss of a beloved character. Maybe all that happened, but it wouldn’t have happened for me.

I want my students to love to read. I think we have to be careful with what we ask them to do with their independent reading books besides fall in love with the story and the language. Sure, they may recognize craft, they may recognize characterization. But the important thing is that they recognize that they are liking to read. That is so important to so many of my readers. They have to realize they like reading.

I do believe we can, and should, ask students to revisit passages — and maybe even the whole of a book — from time to time, even quite often. We can teach many important reading and writing skills that way, but we have to temper our desire to teach a book to death, even the books students choose to read themselves.

What I told my inquiring friend:  What if before independent reading time, on any given day, we ask students to read for a specific purpose.

Read to find interesting figurative language. Read to notice clever imagery. Read to discover how the writer shares an insight about a character. Read to find a beautiful or startling sentence. Or maybe a sentence that’s not really a sentence.

fabian

Fabian before class sharing his awe at the writing style of Jonathan Safron Foer in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Isn’t this what readers do? I do. When I read a passage that strikes me in some way I want to share it. And let me tell you:  When my students start to do this on their own? That’s celebration time.

“What about the student who cannot find anything to share?” you might ask.

Well, that’s important information, isn’t it? I don’t know, maybe like the kind we might discover in a one-on-one reading conference.

Right?

I’d love to know your thoughts on this. What ideas do you have that work for your reading conferences? Please share in the comments.

Big thanks and shout out to @Sean_G_Hood and @mrs_friend and the inspiring teachers at Hebron High School!

 

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